Guiding students to genuine impact by helping them design their own solutions to community problems.

by Lewis Chappelear

Grades 9-12


I strongly believe that students should go out into their communities and use what they’ve learned in class to offer solutions to authentic problems.

I teach in an inner-city area of Los Angeles. Most of my students live in challenging circumstances. The come from home and all of the challenges that they may face there, navigate tough neighborhoods to reach school, then are asked to take math and science and social studies and then go back home.

I run an engineering and design academy at my school. We do a lot of design projects, enter competitions, and build robots. But I found that we weren’t necessarily helping people. We decided as a class to devote our skills and energy to finding projects that have a direct impact on some aspect of the community.

We began by using our 3-D Printer to print out objects that students from a neighboring school for the blind requested – shapes like cones and cylinders and more complex objects like hearts. We made it possible for them to touch and experience objects that they couldn’t see.

The success of this led me to think more broadly about how I could involve all of my students in projects for social good.

I started to organize this by:

-Working on teamwork with a process called “forming, storming, norming, and performing,” and

-Familiarizing the students with the design process, including developing a design statement and brainstorming ideas.

My students are now expected to be community problem solvers by applying what they learn abstractly in the classroom to problems in need of authentic solutions.


What I did well…

Students are motivated to learn for many different reasons. What I did well in this lesson presentation is give teachers a way to connect their students to the real world by giving them the ability to design solutions to relevant problems in their community, down the hallway in another class, or even at home. In order to do this, I first presented the stages of creating successful teams: forming, storming, norming, and performing. Giving students the opportunity to practice working in groups and experience all of the successes and failures that go along with that are invaluable to gaining those soft skills that are critical to the real world workplace. When I was a beginning teacher, I felt like I was missing something by not connecting to the world outside my classroom, or even with my own students. It is difficult to give up control and allow the students to work together on projects that are all different and not defined by me. I feel like my video gives some great tips that will encourage teachers to go outside the box and allow their students to make a real difference in the world around them.

What I would do more of, better, or differently…

Each group of students that come through my classroom door arrives with their own personalities, problems, and talents. I have never had one class like another and have learned that I teach differently to different classes. Working in groups comes naturally to some students, but others find it incredibly difficult. Sometimes I may get an entire class that works great doing individual work, but when I try to get them to work in teams it feels like it is all going to fall apart. I have found myself sometimes avoiding activities that require them to work in groups, but I always go home with that strange feeling inside that tells me that I should have taken the challenge. I wish that I had shared a little bit more of this in my video to let the teachers know that this is not easy for anyone, including myself. I would want to share my own insecurities and failures and reflect on what I have learned from those experiences and feelings.

I still want to grow in this practice by…

I still want to grow in this practice by documenting the journey and progress that my own students take while they are forming teams and designing solutions to real world problems. I have learned that no two solutions are the same – they’re rarely even remotely close. Some of my most successful teams that created the most compelling and wonderful presentations were also some of the teams that were almost ready to fall apart in the beginning. We learn by making mistakes, but also seeing others’ mistakes is almost as beneficial. By documenting using videos, blogs, and journals can help others to experience the process of failing, learning, disagreeing, coming together, and succeeding without having to take the journey themselves. This can also provide great resources for other teachers who want to “see” what the process looks like and how the ebbs and flows of chaos in the classroom can yield great results!

About Lewis Chappelear

Lewis Chappelear received a B.S. in Biomedical Engineering (1994) from Boston University and an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering (1995) from Columbia...

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